Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 13: Freeman, Merf & The Boy Scouts From Hell

My mood had improved considerably by morning. I awoke to find it no longer raining, and the mysterious pain in my leg mercifully abated. I was so happy and relieved to be moving around again freely that I eagerly bounded out of camp, leaving behind a bag of titanium tent stakes hanging stupidly from the limb of a tree.

Unfortunately, neither of my companions had the common sense to check my area to see if I had packed everything; they were too selfishly concerned with their own affairs. Still, the tent stakes were only about $20 and of considerable sentimental value, so it's not like I would be mourning their loss for days. Nor would I be reduced to tears later as I pathetically erected my tent using twigs and small branches. Things get lost on the trail. That's just the way it is.

Jason had gotten ahead of me that morning, as usual, but I caught up with him near Mooney Gap. I saw him up ahead, sitting in a lawn chair underneath a popup canopy next to an old pickup truck. He was relaxing, drinking a soda, and was sharing what must have been a truly awesome clove cigarette with what looked like a homeless man who said his name was Fishing Fred.

Fishing Fred invited me to take his seat, and jumped up to grab me a soda. I accepted, and threw my pack down. Jason beckoned to me.

"M.C.," he whispered, his eyes lighting up mischievously. "He's got chili."

I wasn't particularly hungry, but I supposed I could always go for some chili. I immediately ditched Jason to go claim what was rapidly becoming my favorite food. I knew, of course, that it would have meat in it. I didn't care. Maybe I could learn to like eating meat. I was breaking all sorts of taboos on the trail. What was next? Getting naked in front of other men? As it turned out, yes, but that's a different story. For now, I wanted my chili.

It was basically a watery tomato soup with a few token pinto beans and chunks of undercooked hamburger thrown in. It looked like someone had vomited blood into an already clogged toilet, and was slightly less appetizing. Out of respect for Fishing Fred, I took a short stroll and waited until I was safely out of sight before chucking it over a cliff. Now, throwing my trail magic over a cliff had a practical function, as well as being cathartic and emotionally satisfying. I was somewhat and justifiably afraid that if I merely dumped the chili in the woods, Fishing Fred's dog would find it, eat it, and instantly die of dysentery. So you see, by tossing the chili over a cliff, I was in fact heroically doing my part to combat animal cruelty. The SPCA would have been proud.

I returned to Jason and Fishing Fred, who were still smoking their ubiquitous clove cigarette. They asked me if I wanted a drag, but I declined. I only ever partake of cloves in hot cider, or on peaches marinated in red wine and cinnamon. And brownies. I never pass up a clove brownie. But on this morning, the idea of smoking a clove cigarette held no particular appeal for me.

Two more people arrived, but from the north, surprisingly. One of them was an impossibly handsome and cheerful young man named Freeman. I recognized him, or at least his voice, from the night before. He had just returned from Albert Mountain with another hiker, a woman, who had fallen and seemed to have broken her wrist. She wasn't in agonizing physical pain, but was suffering some mental and emotional anguish over having apparently knocked herself off the trail. I felt bad for her, but envied her in a way. Especially when the Forest Ranger arrived to take her back to civilization.

Feeling a little hazy from all the clove smoke, I decided to hike on. At some point both Bandito and Jason must have caught up with me, but whether that was before or after the terrific ascent up Albert Mountain, my memories are oddly unclear.

At 5,220 feet, Albert Mountain is only 48 feet shorter than Mount Katahdin. Furthermore, the final approach to Albert's summit consists of scaling 400 vertical feet in .3 miles, which makes it slightly steeper, if considerably shorter, than Katahdin itself. It wasn't that easy, but it was immensely rewarding, and would remain my favorite climb on the trail until South Kinsman in New Hampshire.

We arrived at Big Spring Shelter, or maybe it was Rock Gap Shelter, to find it full of boisterous, unruly Boy Scouts. We looked around for an ostensible authority figure, but the nearest adult was tented forty yards away. That couldn't possibly have been the Scout leader, could it? Actually, yes. But we didn't know that. From all outward appearances, the Scouts were being led by Freeman, who, to his credit, at least seemed to be enjoying playing ring master in their chaotic little circus.

There was also a girl in the shelter, older than the boys, who could have been a den mother of sorts but wasn't really trying that hard to exert her authority. Maybe that was because she didn't really have any, not being affiliated with the Scouts in any way. But how was I supposed to know that? Her name was Merf, although I would mistakenly refer to her as Murph for the next thousand miles. Merf was perfectly amiable and perpetually upbeat, and didn't deserve the particular dishonor of having her name misremembered. But, then again, I have never been accused of being an especially thoughtful or nice person.

Jason, Bandito and I camped below the shelter, disturbingly within sight of a curious backwoods road. I was indeed forced to use twigs and small branches in lieu of my misplaced tent stakes, but I managed not to cry about it. Bandito and Jason made a fire to ward off bears and unsavory rednecks, and we all cheerfully went to sleep, anticipating an easy hike the next day into Franklin, North Carolina, where Jason would be meeting some relatives. Everything was all right. We were having fun again.

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